By Shaun Patrick Tubbs
After days, weeks, maybe even months, something’s different. As I glance through my window, are those intense beams of light really suggesting what I think? Yes, It’s finally warm outside! So, now what? Had this been any other year the answer would be simple. I’d immediately start out running, walking, biking, hey possibly even skipping through the city basking in the newly revealed season. Well, it’s not any other year. And I’ve never spent as much time indoors during a three-month period since probably when my mom had just given birth to me and brought me home from the hospital.
I whole-heartedly believe in the importance of getting outside, building cardiovascular endurance, and experiencing the incredible mental clarity of being in that Vitamin D producing environment. However, right now, we have an extraordinary opportunity to not just do as we’ve done before, but instead to do better, be better, and ultimately enjoy the outdoors even more. And it’s called cross-training.
Let me paint a picture for you: Los Angeles Marathon on March 9, 2014. I had been running consistently for the past twelve weeks, and I was ready (or at least I believed I was ready) to conquer my greatest challenge to date, my first ever marathon. I got up early that Sunday morning and drove to Santa Monica to jump on a bus that carried runners to the start line.
The crisp air from the Santa Monica Bay blew through the layer of my warm-ups as I stepped on the bus with excitement and nervousness. I, like so many runners, had the not so simple goal of just finishing. The sun started to rise as I began my 26.2-mile journey. Everything started as planned. Miles 1-3 went according to my perceived schedule, however mile 4…mile 4 changed the scope of the run. I ran past the mile 4 marker, and my left IT band was done. It was so done that I had to walk to the nearest medical tent and grab an elastic bandage to continue the race. The rest of the race was a physical and mental battle to reach the finish line, which in spite of everything, I did.
However, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I missed something during my preparation that might have spared me the pain and disappointment that I felt. And as my wife drove me home, I reviewed my training over and over. It didn’t take long to discover the answer.
For practically all of my training all I’d actually done is run. I hadn’t worked on my strength, my flexibility, or even my recovery. And all it took was one step that my body wasn’t prepared for that sent it into disarray. Then I understood. Cross-training is the necessary balance our bodies need to be prepared for the steps we’ve yet to take. By giving focus to different forms of cardio, mobility, stretching, and strength training we can actually be better prepared for those areas of physical fitness that we’re really passionate about. So, whether you’re running a marathon or riding your bike around the block, here are just a few of the benefits I’ve found from a consistent practice of cross-training.
Less Chance of Injury
I don’t particularly believe that injuries are inevitable but if you only use a particular muscle group, you're going to experience overuse injuries. Your joints and ligaments can only take so much at a time. Those looking to push their skills may be tempted to keep practicing until they beat a personal record or complete a session, but this may actually slow you down in the long run.
You might develop tightness or soreness in the muscles you're heavily relying on for your athletic efforts. This can lead to disabling injuries that halt your athletic training or enjoyment entirely. Instead of overusing the same joints over and over, cross-training allows you to employ a variety of muscle groups. This enables you to switch between muscle groups when you sense that one may be close to an overuse injury.
Gain Greater Aerobic Capacity
One of the benefits of cross-training is a greater aerobic capacity. This is because when you limit yourself to a particular activity, you'll burn out after a particular period of time and can only stop and recharge. If you're cross-training, you can switch to a different exercise when a particular part of your body is feeling sore, allowing you to continue the length of your training and increase your stamina. By expanding your aerobic capacity this way, you will find that over time that your stamina throughout your workout improves overall.
More Overall Strength
Cross-training can, and should, mean incorporating strength training into your workout routine. For those who focus on stamina or aerobic capacity, strength training often provides a sharp boost in performance. That's because strength affects virtually everything you do—stronger arms mean you can throw a baseball farther, while stronger legs mean you can jump higher and run faster.
By incorporating resistance into your routine, you'll improve your performance more than only practicing your athletic skill of choice would. And as a runner, it’s hard to admit, but all the running in the world won't offer you the immediate gains that resistance training does.
If you make a habit of working out multiple muscle groups, you will develop much greater dynamic flexibility than when you focus on one. Flexibility is developed after performing a particular exercise over and over again, slowly pushing your body's capacity to reach new limits.
When you practice a new exercise, a whole new set of joints, ligaments, and muscles are stretched out, which means you will have more flexibility throughout your body. Performing an exercise that stretches and engages your hamstrings, for example, may help mobilize the pelvis, and release tension in the lower back. It’s all connected.
Stay Healthier, Longer
Cross-training enables your body to recuperate faster from aches and pains, even injuries. Employing alternative exercises not only gives your body the opportunity to heal from your previous activity but in many cases will help stretch and strengthen parts of your body that are causing pain.
Here’s the bottom line: Cross-training makes you a stronger, more flexible, better balanced, more well-rounded person. Although you may have a favorite exercise or sport, varying your routine will improve your performance more than sticking to one particular workout ever could, with increased mental and emotional capacity as well. Hey, sounds pretty good to me! Enjoy the outdoors.